Beetles and Trees

Yet another article is making the rounds, raising eyebrows, and otherwise causing people to exhaust their cliche reserves. This one is about the discovery that pine beetles are now invading parts of New Jersey, and have already “killed tens of thousands of acres of pines, and [they are] marching northward”.

This should not be a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the pine bark beetle’s devastating impact on the Canadian and US West. In that region, the impact is already measured in millions of acres of lost trees.[1]

Why should this not be a surprise? Because natural processes, whether they’re ice coverage at the poles and in continental glaciers and in places like the Great Lakes[2], or the timing of plant and animal cycles, all tend to lock in to the maximum/most beneficial extent possible in a stable environment. Beetles move as far north as they can before they get killed off by cold winters, permafrost exists as far south as it can before it melts, and so on. When we emit many billions of tons of CO2 over a couple of centuries and warm the biosphere, the normally invisible boundaries between hospitable and inhospitable regions for ice, water, plants, and animals, all shift. Suddenly, pine trees in the Rockies and New Jersey are facing a new-to-them infestation; climate change has rewritten the rules in mid-game, with the result being massive “natural” changes. The same holds for Arctic ice, continental glaciers, all aspects of the hydrological cycle, and the migration patterns of animals.

I’ve often (read: endlessly) talked about how climate change undermines the fundamental assumptions of our infrastructure. “Of course it makes sense to put this coal/natural gas/nuclear-fired power plant here — we will always have enough river water to cool it!” And we will, right up to the day when there’s not enough water in the river, or it’s too hot for our purposes, and then we’re suddenly throttling back or shutting down power plants just when we need them most, during heat waves. This has happened numerous times in the EU and the US in the last decade, and as long as we’re tied to our old infrastructure and its increasingly invalid assumptions, it will only happen more. We built a massive portion of our civilization based on one version of reality, and our profligate use of the atmosphere like an open sewer has lead to a wide and deep change in that reality. We have left Earth and are progressing through a series of Eaarths, to borrow the title of Bill McKibben’s book. We’re currently on a path to blow right by 2C of warming over pre-industrial times, with 4C or more by 2100 a real possibility, and even that assumes we can build up that much additional heat in the atmosphere without triggering permafrost and methane feedbacks that will zoom us to even higher levels of warming.

But back to beetles. When I read an article like the one above, I can’t help but wonder why climate communicators don’t make more use of phenology. We have a wealth of information about when lakes freeze and thaw, when cherry blossoms bloom, and countless other natural phenomena. I’ve found that this information is extremely convincing when talking to newcomers who might be under the spell of climate change deniers’ first line of attack, i.e. that It’s Not Really Happening.

But in the vast climate change challenge, that doesn’t mean much, given how far we are from taking anywhere near the kind of action we desperately need to avoid almost unthinkable human impacts and costs.

[1] See also: Forest Health: Mountain Pine Beetle – Rocky Mountain National Park (U.S. National Park Service), plus Discovery of pine beetles breeding twice in a year helps explain increasing damage, CU researchers say for more evidence of just how perversely inconvenient nature can be.

[2] See Shrinking ice worries Great Lakes scientists for information about how much ice cover has declined on the Lakes in recent decades. I live near the southern shore of Lake Ontario, and I can attest to the dramatic loss of ice locally just since 2004.

Photo Credit: Beetles and Climate Change/shutterstock